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The United Nations and Israel

One Against the World

UN and Star By Eetta Prince-Gibson

- After a decade of growing acceptance by the United Nations, Israel is once again finding itself increasingly isolated in the world forum, condemned by its members and in conflict with its leaders.

To Israelis, the United Nations - or UM in Hebrew, an abbreviation of Umot Meuhadot- has often seemed like a pendulum, swinging, often erratically, always ominously, between criticism, censure and even blatant anti-Semitism, along with the occasional surprising supportive declaration or resolution.

In turn, Israel has sometimes ignored or even defied the UN, while alternately pleading to be truly accepted into the "Family of Nations."

"UM-Shmoom," prime minister David Ben-Gurion memorably declared during one Israeli policy clash with the organization, expressing the young state's brazen disdain for the UN's censure of Israel's activities. Yet, at the same time, Israel and Jewish organizations throughout the world earnestly, almost desperately, sought out the UN seal of approval and legitimacy.

In the past decade, the pendulum had swung towards Israel. A sense of acceptance, legitimacy, even normalcy began to develop. Condemnation and censure were no longer routine.

But now, two UN-related events seem to show that the pendulum has swung back again. The ongoing crisis surrounding the UN videotape of the Hizbullah's kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers in October has restored many Israelis' opposition to international intervention and reinforced their belief that "the whole world - and especially the UN - really is against us."

And the looming crises surrounding the UN World Conference Against Racism, scheduled for August 31 in Durban, South Africa, threaten to return Israel and the UN to the dark days in which "Zionism is racism" seemed to be the UN's motto.

For months, UN officials denied that they even had the tape, but just a over a week ago, they finally acknowledged that they had misled Israel. Now, the UN has said that it will allow Israeli officials to view the tape showing the vehicles believed to have been used in the abduction of the Israeli soldiers, but the faces of the alleged kidnappers will be obscured. This, they insist, is in the interests of UN neutrality.

Israel has officially rejected these terms and demanded to receive an uncensored and unaltered version. Throughout the week, government officials and leaders have contended that the tape crisis is proof that the UN is not, and never has been, impartial or fair.

"The UN always has been one-sided, and it is an illusion to think that it could play an effective role here," says Dore Gold, former ambassador to the UN.

Yet despite the government's official position, some Foreign Ministry spokespersons, speaking on condition of anonymity, have been less critical. After all, they point out, the UN has been very supportive of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, accepting most of Israel's positions and contentions and even ignoring the fact that Israeli air force planes regularly fly over Lebanese territory in violation of international agreements.

One source points to Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's speech in Beirut earlier this week, in which he stated clearly that handing the tape over to the "Zionist enemy" would put UNIFIL (United Nations International Force in Lebanon) forces in the category of spying.

"This isn't a case of UN bias," says the source, "The UN is merely trying to protect its forces. That's the real problem with UN peace-keeping forces - they are in such precarious positions."

Furthermore, another source says, the videotape saga is "at least as much a result of bureaucratic screw-ups within the UN as it is a result of deliberate intent. It's not even clear who knew what about the tape, and when."

THE IMPENDING World Conference on Racism, on the other hand, is a totally different issue.

"In Durban," warns Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, who will be heading the Israeli official delegation, "the Arab states want to delegitimize the Jewish people and the State of Israel, through both the resolutions and the terminology."

UN resolutions established the State of Israel and through them this country received international diplomatic recognition.

But ever since then, the UN has more often than not demonstrated hostility and belligerency toward Israel, criticizing Israeli policies, singling out Israel for offenses committed by other states, and prohibiting Israel from the full participation enjoyed by other members.

Among the most harmful UN anti-Israel resolutions was the notorious resolution equating Zionism with racism, passed in November 1975 by 72 votes to 35.

But things began to change in the 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Arab member states were left without the support of the superpower, which was necessary in order to maintain their powerful anti-Israel activities. The Israeli-Arab peace processes, including the treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accords, took the sting out of anti-Israeli activity.

Just weeks after the conclusion of the historic Madrid conference, where Israelis and Arabs conducted negotiations for the first time, the UN repealed the "Zionism is racism" resolution. As the Middle East peace process got under way and the Israelis and Palestinians signed the historic Declaration of Principles in 1993, the number of anti-Israel condemnations at the UN decreased significantly. For the first time the Human Rights Commission condemned anti-Semitism as a form of racism.

In June 1993, Israel was nominated to its first UN committee, the Committee for Information, and in October of that year, for the first time since 1981, the Arab members of the UN did not challenge Israel's seat at the General Assembly. In 1994, Israelis were permitted to participate in the UN peacekeeping mission in Angola and to travel to South Africa as part of a UN effort to monitor the country's first democratic elections. At that time, Israelis also began to be elected to notable UN positions, such as the high administrative tribunal at the Hague, vice chair of the World Health Organization's Executive Committee, and member of the Human Rights Committee.

In June 2000, Israel became a temporary member of the Western Europe and Others (WEOG) working group, making it theoretically eligible for appointment to the Security Council and to other important UN bodies for the first time since it became a member state in 1949. Although the membership is only temporary, and relates only to WEOG discussions and activities centered in New York (and not in other UN centers such as Geneva, Rome, Nairobi or Vienna), it was still seen as a sign of progress.

IN 1997, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), to be held in Durban from August 31 to September 7, 2001. The conference has a broad mandate, and international non-governmental organizations are expected to play a significant role.

This will be the third UN conference on racism. The first two took place in Geneva in 1978 and 1983. (Official Israeli delegations did not attend these previous conferences because the 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism had not yet been repealed).

Prior to the WCAR, four regional preparatory conferences (PrepComs) in Strasbourg, Santiago, Dakar and Teheran, were convened to negotiate language for resolutions to be adopted at the conference. Because Israel is not part of a regional group, Israel could not participate in any of the regional PrepComs.

In late May, representatives from the four regional PrepComs met in Geneva in an attempt to create a consensus document to be proposed and adopted in Durban. But the language of the Teheran text draft is markedly anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, and re-introduces the Zionism-equals-racism concept through UN double-speak and ostensible human-rights language. The Geneva participants were unable to agree on a draft resolution, and, accordingly, a third PrepCom will be held in Geneva at the end of this month.

The current proposed draft is replete with blatant anti-Israel and anti-Semitic phrasing. In what the Institute of the World Jewish Congress calls a "stunning display of verbal acrobatics," the draft even attempts to equate anti-Semitism with Zionism.

"This is much worse than the 'Zionism equals racism [concept],'" Melchior continues. "In Durban, Israel is being presented as the embodiment of all evil, the antithesis of all that is worthy and humane. Israel is being portrayed as the new Antichrist."

Some examples from the proposed texts with the controversial phrases in square brackets as they appear in the original texts: Clause 54 speaks of the need to combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as intrinsic to opposing all forms of racism, while the draft of Clause 55, on which there are also conflicting opinions, reflects deep concern at the worldwide increase in anti-Semitism and "the increase of racist practices of Zionism... as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas, in particular, the Zionist movement, which is based on racial superiority."

Another clause states: "We are convinced that combating anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Zionist practices against Semitism is integral and intrinsic to opposing all forms of racism..."

Other sections, such as Clause 25, refer specifically to Israeli settlement activity. In a section entitled "Ethnic cleansing, genocide, slavery, and similar crimes," the proposed text reads: "We affirm that a foreign occupation founded on settlements, its laws based on racial discrimination, with the aim of continuing domination of the occupied territory, as well as its practices, which consist of reinforcing a total military blockade, isolating towns, cities, and villages under occupation from each other, totally contradict the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and constitute a serious violation of international human rights and humanitarian law, a new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity and a serious threat to international peace and security."

"If building an apartment in Gilo is a crime against humanity, then the term has no meaning," says Melchior. "One can agree or disagree regarding Israeli settlement policy. One can agree or disagree about Israeli policy in the territories. But is Israeli settlement policy really the most heinous and awful crime against humanity currently being committed on the face of the earth? If everything is a crime against humanity, then nothing is a crime against humanity."

MK Naomi Chazan (Meretz) has been involved with the UN Conferences on Women, held in Nairobi in 1985 and in Beijing, in 1995. She describes Israel's international relations as consisting of three circles, "which should be kept separate.

"The first circle represents the government of Israel," she says. "It is legitimate to disagree with the government and its policies. But the second circle relates to the legitimization of the State of Israel and Zionism, and the third relates to Judaism and anti-Semitism. The draft resolution has combined all of these, and so I cannot support it.

"I am very critical of the policies of the government of Israel," Chazan continues, "but not of the legitimacy of the State of Israel or Zionism, and I cannot condone or accept attacks on Judaism."

In Nairobi, she recalls, even though the UN had not repealed the Zionism-equals-racism resolution, the Women's Conference did so. And by the time of the Beijing Conference in 1995, it simply "wasn't an issue. We, women from all over the world, were able to work together substantively. Unfortunately, that's not what's happening in Durban."

Melchior also points to what he sees as a troubling trivialization of the Holocaust. One controversial proposed paragraph in the draft declaration reads, "We salute and acknowledge the memory of all victims of racism and racial discrimination, slavery and slave trade, colonialism, holocaust, ethnic cleansing of the Arab population in historic Palestine and in Kosovo and apartheid and foreign occupation all over the world and at all times."

Israeli and American diplomats have been lobbying delegates to the conference to try to make sure the resolution does not include the clauses hostile to Israel.

Israel is also enlisting the world Jewish community. Earlier this month Melchior convened a conference in London of some 60 Jewish leaders from around the world to discuss the proposals and how best to lobby against them. Jewish NGOs from around the world have established a Jewish Issues Caucus, including the World Jewish Congress, Hadassah, B'nai B'rith Canada, the American Jewish Committee, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and others.

"Unfortunately, some governments are seeking to abuse the mission of the conference to criticize Israel and to resurrect the old, discredited 'Zionism-equals-racism' language," wrote Glen Tobias, Anti-Defamation League national chairman, and Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director, to foreign ministers throughout the world last spring. "This divisive, offensive equation is based on hatred and misunderstanding. It has no place in the fight against racism and threatens to undermine the important work of this conference."

Melchior is cautiously optimistic that these efforts may be successful. Some world leaders, he says, including the leaders of Australia and Sweden, as well as the US, have expressed their reservations regarding the anti-Israel bias, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also expressed reservations.

SO WHY has the pendulum swung back again towards the hostility, enmity, and attempts at international delegitimization of Israel and Zionism?

Experts point to various reasons.

The ongoing conflict is, of course, the first answer. Since last October in which the Palestinians have won much of the world's moral high ground, Israel's international standing has deteriorated at all levels, from tourism to venture-capital investment to political legitimacy.

"The intifada hasn't taken us two or three years backwards," said a source in the Foreign Ministry. "It's taken us at least a decade backwards. It will take us many years to rebuild the standing and normalization that we had built over the past decade."

The ongoing violence forces Israel to the international foreground. Says Melchior: "Israel is in an untenable position, and much of the criticism directed at our country is justified. We are in a position of conquest that creates horrible situations, oppression, collective punishments, and other abuses.

"But the intifada has given Israel's opponents an opportunity to distort things out of all proportion. WCAR won't talk about the rights of children, or about the slave trade, or about AIDS - are we the only ones who have any human-rights abuses? The proportions are ridiculous."

To some, the current anti-Israel swing is proof of how fragile, or even phony, Israel's ostensible improved status really was.

Attempts to delegitimize Israel never really ended, they was just suppressed, contends former ambassador Gold, and the anti-Israeli lobby has always been quick to utilize current trends in its ongoing fight against the state. So, as human rights and international humanitarian law became increasingly central to the UN agenda, the Arab lobby has been quick to politicize them for its own interests.

"It's certainly not that Israel's so-called human-rights violations are the worst in the world," Gold insists. Rather, "Israel is, and always has been, easy prey in the international community."

By delegitimizing Israel in the international arena, Gold explains, the Arabs are able to achieve a voice heard well beyond their own capitals.

The United States (along with Micronesia) has always been Israel's biggest supporter at the UN, and while the support remains strong, America's strategic position has been damaged by the renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Furthermore, the US's relationship with the UN has been rocky, too. Earlier this year, the US was voted off a UN human-rights body and the US has, in the past, withheld its payment of UN dues. And in addition to the issues related to Israel, the US is opposed to parts of the Durban resolution that would reinforce claims by African Americans and African nations demanding reparations from countries that were involved in the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Diplomatic sources in Washington have been cited as saying that, if the resolution passes in its current form, Congress could move again to deny those payments or even boycott the WCAR.

As the US's influence may be waning, the influence of Islam, especially in Europe, is on the rise. Today, Islam is the fastest-growing religion on the European continent, and nearly 20 million people in European Union countries identify themselves as Muslims, according to an American Jewish Congress publication.

European Muslims are thus a political force to be reckoned with. And part of this force, says Melchior, includes the rise of a new, radical Arab nationalism, which derives from Islamic fundamentalism.

"The radical Islamics want to change the conflict from a territorial conflict, which can be resolved through compromise, to an existential conflict, which has no compromise and no solution," he warns.

SO THE pendulum has swung against Israel yet again. Does it really matter?

According to Gold, it matters a lot. "We must maintain a fundamental respect for international conventions in the international community. It's not as though we can ignore all international conventions.

"They aren't just useless verbiage and we can't just cynically dismiss them," Gold cautions. From a strategic point of view, Gold explains, weakening Israel's international position weakens Israel's negotiating position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He cites settlement activity as an example. "The Palestinians wanted to get a settlement freeze written into the Oslo Accords, but they were unable to. So the PLO has been able to do so by bringing the issue of settlements into the international arena. What they couldn't achieve in the bilateral discussions, they hope to achieve in multilateral discussions, where Israel is at a disadvantage," he explains.

If Israel is effectively excommunicated from the international community, it could have serious political and economic implications. Although the public usually pays attention to the UN General Assembly, in fact, much of the UN's work is done in conferences and conventions, such as HABITAT (on housing and living conditions), UNICEF, CEDAW (the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), regional environmental committees, and others.

In recent years, the UN has emphasized programs relating to civil society and democratization, and these forums are often empowered to make practical decisions regarding policies and programs, and Israel's exclusion from these organizations could have concrete negative effects for the country as a whole and for all Israelis. A pariah-like Israel would not be eligible for funding for regional or national projects, for example.

And then there are the psychological implications. To some Israelis, the UN has long represented the eternal hatred that the gentile world feels toward the Jews.

But other Israelis and Jews had come to hope, and believe, that they are part of the international community, committed to global values and standards, enjoying the breadth of acceptance and the benefits of normalcy. And in a globalized world, simply shrugging and saying "UM-shmoom" is no longer a sufficient response.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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